The Promise of Medicinal Cannabis – How Research Is Unlocking its Benefits
Over the last few years, the number of states legalizing medicinal marijuana has increased substantially. Likewise, the benefits of cannabis are being increasingly recognized as research advances. For decades, international research has been accumulating data that shows the broad range of health advantages that medicinal marijuana provides. And based on recent US regulatory changes, similar research efforts may be better supported in the years to come in the U.S. The writing, however, is already on the wall, and the benefits of cannabis are being widely appreciated. For millions of individuals across the globe, the promise of medicinal cannabis offers hope where few options previously existed. And based on current evidence, it appears the sky is the limit.
How Medical Cannabis Works – The Endogenous Cannabinoid System
Over the last several decades, much has been learned about how medicinal marijuana exerts its beneficial effects on health. Researchers have identified the endogenous cannabinoid system (ECS) in our bodies, which is where marijuana exerts its health effects. The ECS is quite extensive and regulates a variety of physiologic processes in our brain and bodies including the immune function, pain control, mood, memory, appetite and even temperature regulation. The ECS primarily consists of two key cell receptors where medicinal cannabis interacts which results in the benefits of cannabis:
- CB-1 receptors, which are primarily located in our brain and spinal cord. CB-1 receptors have been shown to be important in mitigating pain response and other sensations.
- CB-2 receptors, which tend to be located throughout our bodies. CB-2 receptors are more involved in inflammation and immune system regulation.
In terms of medicinal cannabis, both plant-based cannabinoids and pharmacologically-created ones exist. Plant-based cannabinoids, also called phytocannabinoids, are derived directly from the plant. Roughly 113 different phytocannabinoids have been identified to date. These include THC, CBD, CBG and others with the overwhelming majority being non-intoxicating. All of these have the potential to interact with CB-1 and CB-2 receptors in our bodies; however, they differ in terms of the specific effects and interactions throughout the body. This is why several benefits of cannabis are being progressively appreciated as research unfolds.
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The History of Cannabis Research
While it may seem that medicinal marijuana is relatively new, that is far from the truth. In fact, the benefits of cannabis have been well recognized as far back as 2900 B.C. At that time, Chinese healers used marijuana plant seeds to treat joint pain and muscle spasms. Likewise, medicinal marijuana was also used in India around 1000 B.C. for pain, inflammation and sedation. And before the 20th century, over 100 research articles exploring the benefits of cannabis were published. Medicinal marijuana has thus been well identified as have powerful healing properties throughout time.
Unfortunately, research involving medicinal marijuana has been discouraged in recent times, especially in the U.S. Historically, marijuana was used as a means to create minority racial barriers. Even today, arrests of racial minorities for marijuana possession outnumber White arrests 4-to-1, despite comparable use figures. Likewise, marijuana’s listing as a Schedule I narcotic in the early 1960s was driven by political motivations at the time. These issues, as well as resistance from those who oppose cannabis use for moral reasons, still exist in large segments of the population. As a result, research into cannabis’ beneficial properties has been greatly hindered in the U.S.
Fortunately, this is not the case when it comes to international research involving medicinal marijuana. While some nations agreed not to pursue such research, other nations foresaw the potential benefits of cannabis in healthcare. Specifically, Israel has been a leader in this regard since the 1960s compiling tremendous amounts of data about medicinal marijuana. Other countries that have been proactive in this regard include India, Germany and the Netherlands. And despite being years behind, it appears the U.S. is finally relaxing its restrictions on medicinal marijuana research. The DEA recently announced plans to register more cannabis plant growers for research, which will help prompt higher quality data. This is welcomed news for millions who suffer from a variety of health conditions.
“We support additional research into marijuana and its components, and we believe registering more growers will result in researchers having access to a wider variety for study.” – Uttam Dhillon, DEA Acting Administrator
Research-Supported Benefits of Cannabis
Despite U.S. lagging behind, international studies as well as some U.S.-based research are showing tremendous benefits of medical marijuana. And the use of medicinal marijuana to manage an array of health problems continues to expand each year. The following is a snapshot of the current medicinal marijuana research landscape.
- Pain – In terms of the benefits of cannabis for pain, a significant amount of data exists. A recent meta-analysis of 28 studies involving 254 chronic pain patients showed clear evidence that medicinal marijuana is effective. These effects were noted for both natural phytocannabinoids and for pharmacologic varieties. And additional research has supported similar benefits in acute pain as well.
- Opioid Use – Besides pain control effects, the benefits of cannabis also extend to opioid-use reduction. In states where medicinal marijuana has been legalized, overdose rates and mortality related to opioid use have significantly declined. Medicare claims data also shows opioid use is reduced among their patient population in these states as well.
- Autism – Interestingly, research done in seizure patients in Israel identified the benefits of cannabis in controlling behavior. As a result, medicinal marijuana has also been studied in autism as it relates to mood and behavior issues. A large prospect analysis of nearly 200 autism patients showed significant benefits of cannabis. Specifically, behavior, communication, anxiety, and stress all showed at least moderate levels of improvement.
- Epilepsy – Research involving the use of medicinal marijuana in poorly controlled seizures has shown clear benefits of cannabis. In a recent analysis of 36 separate research studies, seizure frequency was reduced by more than 50 percent in treatment-resistant epilepsy. In addition, some became seizure-free, with most reporting a higher quality of life. This has led to the approval of some cannabinoid drugs, even in the U.S.
- Multiple Sclerosis – Both pharmaceutical cannabinoids and phytocannabinoids have been shown to improve spasticity and pain in MS patients. An extensive scientific review of 32 studies revealed that these benefits of cannabis were clearly established. In addition, sleep, bladder spasms and other MS-related symptoms may also improve with medicinal marijuana.
- Cancer – This particular area is quite exciting in terms of the benefits of cannabis. Extensive reviews of the latest research have shown medicinal marijuana has the potential to inhibit tumor growth. Likewise, some research indicates it promotes cancer cell death. Specific cancers that have responded to medicinal marijuana in studies include pancreatic, lung, liver, prostate, gliomas, and leukemias.
Other conditions have also been studied in national and international arenas concerning medicinal marijuana. Current benefits of cannabis have been noted in a variety of anxiety disorders and in individuals with insomnia. Likewise, it is routinely used to manage severe nausea and loss of appetite. And more recent research is investigating the potential benefits of cannabis in PTSD, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s. Without question, the promise of medicinal marijuana looks to be quite impressive.
“Marijuana is medicine. This plant-based treatment should be an accessible and affordable healthcare choice for all patients. Scientific data supports its use to treat specific ailments or conditions…” – Chanda Macias, MBA, PhD, Owner and CEO of National Healing Holistic Center
Approved Pharmaceutical Formulations
In terms of approved medicinal marijuana formulations, a number have been approved internationally with some also approved in the U.S. These are in addition to traditional medicinal marijuana provided through dispensaries. The following offers an overview of those pharmaceutical drugs used for some of the above conditions noted.
- Epiodolex – This medication was the first ever cannabinoid drug approved by the FDA in the U.S. Marked by GW Pharmaceuticals, Epiodolex has been approved for treating epilepsy in severe conditions like Lennox-Gastaut and Darvet syndromes.
- Sativex – This medicinal marijuana formulation consists of both CBD and THC, and it is used to help manage MS-related spasticity. The drug is also marked by GW Pharmaceuticals. Despite not being approved for use in the U.S., it is routinely administered in 30 countries.
- Marinol – This medicinal marijuana formulation is marketed by Abbvie Inc. and used to combat nausea and anorexia. Most commonly, it is utilized in AIDS patients and in those receiving chemotherapy for various reasons. Marinol is a synthetic cannabis drug that mimics THC structures.
- Syndros – Also a synthetic THC-like drug, this medicinal marijuana formulation is manufactured by Insys Therapeutics. It has been approved for use since 2016 for nausea and anorexia in AIDS and cancer patients.
Unlocking the Door to Medical Cannabis Secrets
These are exciting times when you consider the boom in medicinal marijuana research that is about to take place. As social stigma declines regarding the use of marijuana, the health benefits of cannabis will soon be more fully appreciated. And with countries throughout the world investing in medicinal marijuana research, it appears our learning curve will be steep. In fact, many predict that the cannabinoid nutraceutical and pharmaceutical market may soon be larger than recreational cannabis. Based on the evidence to date, this prediction no longer seems so far-fetched. And for those suffering from an array of health conditions, this is great news.